Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 18

Skyrim Unity Tour

“It’s hot,” Lydia said, gazing wistfully down at the laughing waters of the White River.

“It is, my love,” Deirdre said. She reined her horse to a halt, and her three friends did likewise, sitting four abreast across the road.

Pic of a swimming hole on the White River
White River pools

Seated on one end, Brelyna noticed Deirdre grinning mischievously at the rest of them, and couldn’t help but be amused herself. They’d come to the point west of Valtheim Towers where the road rose away from the river. Down a little track along the banks was the hidden pool where she, J’zargo, and Onmund had come across Deirdre and Lydia back in the fall, sunning themselves after a swim, naked as the day they were born. That had been an awkward meeting.

Now that the queen’s entourage had come to a halt, the rest of the procession was leaving them behind, snaking up the road ahead of them on the way to Whiterun. The combined entourages of three jarls made for an impressive display. Thus far on this Skyrim tour, Deirdre and her friends had ridden in the front of the procession. But this morning when preparing to leave Fort Amol, Deirdre and Lydia had unaccountably dawdled. Ralof and Kharjo had grown so impatient that they’d joined Ulfric’s entourage, and the queen’s party had to catch up to bring up the rear. Now Brelyna thought she knew why.

“You look like you’re suffering in all that armor,” Deirdre said to Lydia.

“Aye,” Lydia said, though she grinned back at Deirdre. She didn’t look as if she were suffering any more than the Royal Guards all around them. She wasn’t even wearing her plate armor, just her gambeson, she was feeling so confident and at ease.

“Would you like to go for a dip?” Deirdre’s eyes had taken on a positively daedra-like twinkle.

“As you will, my Queen.” Lydia tried to sound merely obedient, but she couldn’t quite suppress a giggle.

“Would you like some company?” Brelyna asked, all innocence. Someone had to get the question in before J’zargo could speak up. Although, come to think of it, J’zargo was remarkably quiet. He’d been this way all morning, riding next to her, lost in his own thoughts.

“Oh, no, I think we’ll be fine on our own,” Deirdre said, giving Brelyna a wink.

One of the guards spoke up. “But my captain, just the two of you, alone in the wilds? Are you sure it’s safe?”

Lydia took mock offense. “The Dragonborn and the Hero of Whiterun? What could happen?”

The guards all gaped — clearly a carefree Captain Ravenwood was one they’d neither seen nor imagined.

“And besides,” Lydia went on, giving Deirdre her own devilish grin, “the queen and I have some unfinished business down in that pool. Wait for us up by the old Stormcloak camp.”

The pair urged their horses down the track along the river, leaving the guards wide-eyed and Brelyna stifling a laugh. Much had changed since Forelhost, and this new, carefree Lydia was the best change of all. What a difference from the worried, ever-watchful woman who had met them in the Dragon Bridge jail! They had these recent days of travel to thank for it.

The chief purpose of the tour was to allow Deirdre to speak directly to the people, proclaiming the Khajiits’ innocence and identifying the true murderer. But more than that, Deirdre hoped to convince her Nord subjects to put aside the hatreds and prejudices that had been so easily manipulated by the Thalmor and their agent. Brelyna doubted that such a thing was possible, but still she was sworn to help the queen in any way she could.

Yet Brelyna was more concerned about her other friend’s mental state. Lydia was the rock they all depended on — not just Deirdre, but all of her friends, and indeed, the entire realm. The people looked up to their queen, no doubt, and would be forever grateful that she’d saved the world from destruction. But in the end Deirdre was a mage and the Dragonborn, both of which inspired more fear than affection. It was Lydia, the true Nord, whom they could love with all their hearts. To see her nearly crumble in Forelhost had been a shock. Brelyna wondered how the Nords would react if they ever saw Lydia in such a state.

They’d emerged from Forelhost long after dark, then camped on the porch at its entrance. Perhaps it was the proximity to that dark place, but Lydia awoke screaming in the middle of the night, and it took hours of Deirdre soothing her before she would go back to sleep. So it was a weary and bedraggled group that arrived in Riften. Deirdre had managed, just barely, to convince Laila Law-Giver to support her as she spoke to the people, and to accompany them as they continued the Queen’s Unity Tour.

Brelyna had kept one eye on the crowd and the other on Lydia as the queen spoke. Lydia’s downcast expression and shifting eyes were the opposite of inspiring, and the people remained unimpressed. The queen had caught the killer and that was that. Thanks were due her, but no more. What if a Khajiit had taken the lead in capturing him? That was the least the cat-people could do after these weeks of fear. And what was all this talk of equality and brotherly love? So they’d been wrong about who the real killer was. Who could blame them for being too careful? If a few Khajiits had been wrongfully imprisoned, that was just the price of keeping the people safe.

At least, those were the thoughts Brelyna imagined were going through the people’s minds as she scanned their impassive, sometimes hostile faces. She was just glad they’d refrained from jeering or throwing rotten fruit.

After that, she’d helped Deirdre tighten the speech, making the appeals to the people’s better selves more direct and less abstract. Not to mention showing them what was in it for them. She could see how easy it would be to rally the people against an external foe, especially one toward whom they already bore a grievance, whether real or imagined. That had been Ulfric’s tactic during the Civil War, railing against the Thalmor and the ban on worshiping Talos. But when the foe was within their own hearts? Much harder, maybe impossible.

She’d continued to keep an eye on Lydia as they’d ridden north toward Windhelm, glad to see her and Deirdre spending much time together by themselves. She hoped they were talking over the events at Whiterun, or maybe even what had happened in the Aldmeri Embassy. That night, the camp was quiet and Lydia had no nightmares. And the following day, Lydia took time to ride next to Brelyna and J’zargo while Deirdre was busy with Jarl Laila.

At first they talked of little, how impressive the view was across the steaming pools near Bonestrewn Crest, and how nice it was to enjoy it without fear of dragon attack. Then Lydia grew somber.

“I never properly thanked you for protecting the children and elderly during the retreat,” she said.

“Lydia Ravenwood is most welcome,” said J’zargo.

“Yes,” said Brelyna, “and I only regret we couldn’t do more. But really, Lydia, without your leadership, we’d all have been slaughtered. It is we who are in your debt.”

Lydia looked as if she couldn’t quite believe this. “How do you cope with it?” she asked. “You must have seen the same awful sights I did. We all lost our closest friends.”

“I’m not sure I really do cope with it. I dream of it often. At first I talked with Deirdre about it, and that helped somewhat. She wasn’t there, but she’s seen enough of death to understand. I tried talking to J’zargo here, but he was like you, never wanting to relive it.”

“J’zargo kept his thoughts to himself. Perhaps this was a mistake, no?”

“I thought I’d seen enough of battle that nothing like that could bother me. How wrong could I be?”

“Perhaps true strength comes only from facing our memories, no matter how fearful or disturbing.”

Lydia was quiet after that, lost in her thoughts, and J’zargo had ridden closer to Brelyna, reaching across to place a consoling hand on her shoulder.

In the days since, Brelyna had noticed a new side to Lydia. Thus far, she’d known just two facets of her friend’s personality: the usual bold, fearless Lydia who was ready to take on anything, and the Lydia who’d recovered from near death, doom-driven at not having done more to protect Balgruuf and to save Whiterun.

What she had never known was a Lydia alive to every emotion, especially those the Nords wrote off as the province of milk-drinkers. She’d catch her staring off into the forest they rode through, a distracted look on her face and a tear in the corner of her eye. But she also noticed her smiling more, taking delight in small things. In the past, Deirdre was always the one to exclaim in joy at a new display of wildflowers, leaping from her horse to gather a posy for Lydia, who would smile tolerantly at this enthusiasm for such a small, everyday thing. But now Lydia was the first to notice any new bloom, and to ask Deirdre what it was called.

Most of all, she seemed less on edge and guarded than she’d been these past weeks, and especially relaxed in Windhelm, at the feast after Deirdre’s speech. The talk had gone better than the one in Riften, perhaps because Ulfric himself was now seen to be supporting her and her efforts. All those who attended the feast in the great hall in the Palace of the Kings seemed in a good mood. Then Jorleif, Ulfric’s steward, asked Lydia to tell the tale of the Battle of Whiterun. Brelyna was surprised when she said yes.

Pic of the Great Hall in the Palace of the Kings
The great hall in the Palace of the Kings

Some had never heard the tale before, and none had ever heard Lydia tell it. By the time she got to Balgruuf ordering her to take charge of the fleeing women, children, elderly, and wounded, her voice began to quaver. As she told of her friends and shield-brothers beginning to fall, tears began to fall as well, and not only hers. By the time she got to Onmund’s self-sacrifice, she was openly weeping.

Through her own tears, Brelyna saw that there weren’t many dry eyes around the long tables. Even Ulfric was dabbing at the corner of his eye as if some foreign object had gotten into it. So this was how the Nords would react to Lydia showing any sign of weakness! Perhaps she’d underestimated them.

Lydia looked up from where she’d been staring at her own lap, plainly expecting looks of disdain from her audience. Instead, the silence was broken only by a few sniffles. At last, Ralof got up and went around to her, standing next to her with one hand on her shoulder and the other raising high a mug of mead. “To Lydia! Few Nords have ever acted so bravely. Ysgramor would be proud.” As shouts of approval rang through the hall, Lydia looked as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

And even more so when Ulfric stood for a second toast. “To the Hero of Whiterun, long may she swing an axe!” After that, the hero could hardly finish her meal as the guests came around to offer her their praise and sympathy.

And so it was a different Lydia who arrived at Fort Amol at the head of a procession swelled not only by Ulfric’s entourage, but also the smaller one of Jarl Korir of Winterhold, who had come down to show his support. This was the place where her friends had brought Lydia after the retreat, and where Deirdre and Arcadia had ministered to her wound. Brelyna saw her face grow darker at the memory as she dismounted and looked at the keep.

Pic of Fort Amol
Fort Amol

Then Lydia laughed and reached a hand out to Deirdre.

“What could you find funny about this place?” Deirdre asked. She seemed more affected than Lydia, who’d remained unconscious during most of that time.

“I just remembered, I was in such pain when I came to, and there you were, twisting the arrow in my shoulder. I thought you were torturing me for refusing to marry you.”

“And you find that funny?”

“I do now.”

“I only remember the horror of what I had to do to get that arrow out.” Deirdre shuddered, and a tear rolled down her cheek.

“We all witnessed horror that day,” Lydia said, wiping the tear away.

The commander of the fort offered the queen and her consort his quarters, not realizing it was the very room where the events they’d just been discussing had taken place.

“No,” Deirdre said, “I believe we’ll pitch our tent out here in the bailey.”

They’d both seemed much brighter when they arose late the next morning, and in little hurry to get to Whiterun.

“Elisif won’t arrive until mid-day, and I’d like to present a united front to Hrongar,” Deirdre said, but it had sounded to Brelyna like an excuse.

And now here they were, just she and J’zargo and sixteen Royal Guards, Deirdre and Lydia having disappeared around a bend in the river, and the rest of the procession far ahead up the hill.

“Come on,” she said, “we’d better catch the others before they pass the track to the Stormcloak Camp.” She truly was glad that her friends now felt enough at ease to take a quiet moment to themselves, yet it would make for some awkward explanations when they caught up to the jarls.

And what of J’zargo, riding so silently next to her? It was hard to believe he’d restrained himself from making some crass remark when the subject of a swim had come up. The silence went on for a few moments, Brelyna feeling J’zargo’s pensive gaze upon her. She looked over at him, and he only smiled.

At last she couldn’t stand it. “What, you didn’t want to join our friends for a swim? You can admit it. It’s better not to hide these things, though sometimes I wish you would.”

J’zargo just looked at her calmly. “You know J’zargo does not like to swim, and besides, if this one ever did go skin-dipping, it would only be with Brelyna.”

She couldn’t respond, she was so awestruck.

They caught up to the jarls and then the entire party pulled off the road where a track broke off to the old Stormcloak camp.

“We might as well let the horses graze,” said Brelyna, having explained the reason for Deirdre and Lydia’s absence. “It could be a while.”

Pic of Jarl Ulfric
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak

“How long does a quick dip take?” Ulfric demanded.

“Oh, Lydia has all that complicated armor to remove,” Brelyna lied, trying to keep a straight face.

Half an hour passed, all the while J’zargo persisted in his unusual silence, never making any crass remarks about what he must have guessed was going on down by the river.

Finally Ralof came over. “It’s been quite a while. Are you sure we shouldn’t be worried about them?”

How to put this? “Only if we’re concerned they’ll die of an excess of blissful pleasure.”

“Oh,” was all he could say, the light of realization dawning in his eyes. He returned to tending his horse.

Apparently this last had been too much for J’zargo, because now he came over from where he’d been rummaging in his horse’s saddlebags. She was sure he was going to say something about the blissful pleasure two females could have together, or ask if she’d ever experienced such pleasures. Or worse, suggest the pleasure of two females would be all the greater with J’zargo’s company.

She was formulating a biting response to any such remarks when J’zargo went down on one knee and grasped her hand. Her heart caught in her throat.

“Brelyna Maryon of House Telvanni, this one realizes he can’t live without you. You are the twin moons to this one’s Nirn, the sweet in J’zargo’s sweetroll, the honey in his mead, the moon sugar in his skooma. This one knows he is not worthy of Brelyna’s many perfections, but still he must dare to ask: will Brelyna wed J’zargo, making this one the happiest Khajiit in all of Tamriel?” He opened his free hand and held out a shining gold ring.

All was silent as the soldiers, jarls, Ralof, and Kharjo gaped at them. The silence lengthened as she struggled for an answer. The J’zargo of these past weeks was truly different from the J’zargo she’d first met in Winterhold, as far as his arrogance and wandering eye went. Surely what he’d just witnessed from Deirdre and Lydia had been a stern test of the latter. Yet it hadn’t seemed to affect him at all.

To stall for time, she asked about the ring. “Did that come from Forelhost?”

“It did. I snatched it from an urn. Is it not bright and shiny enough?”

“Certainly it’s pretty, but I’m more concerned that it will turn me into a gnome.”

J’zargo laughed. “No, after Saarthal, J’zargo learned to test items for enchantments. It has no magic.” He still held it out, gazing hopefully up at her.

Oh, what the Oblivion, she thought. You only live once, although in a Dunmer’s case that could be over two hundred years.

“So, you’re asking that I be your mate, and you’ll be mine, forsaking all others?”

“Yes, that is J’zargo’s most ardent wish.”

“Then I accept. As to a wedding, we’ll have to talk. I don’t know how they feel in Elsweyr, but my family will neither accept nor permit it. My brothers will hunt us both down if they find out. If there is a ceremony, it will have to be quiet and small, just for our friends.”

“Whatever Brelyna wishes, as long as J’zargo gets to spend the rest of his days with her.” He slipped the ring on her finger, then stood up and kissed her long and hard. His whiskers tickled her cheeks, as always. All around them, Ralof and Kharjo, the guards, and even the jarls clapped and shouted approval.

Just then Deirdre and Lydia came riding up. Brelyna heard them arrive, but was too preoccupied to give much notice. At last they broke off the kiss and Brelyna turned to tell her friends the news. She half expected them to still be wearing their small clothes, but no, they’d arrayed themselves properly for the event that was to come in Whiterun, Deirdre in her fine trousers, polished boots, and a brocaded tunic, her head topped by the golden crown. Lydia was back in her full steel armor, with a fresh-pressed sash bearing the queen’s sigil. Despite their formal attire, both glowed with contentment.

“What did we miss?” Lydia asked, looking from one to the other.

J’zargo grinned. “Deirdre and Lydia aren’t the only ones experiencing — how did you say, Brelyna? — excesses of blissful pleasure.”

Laughter broke out all around, and Brelyna kissed him again, relishing J’zargo’s contented purr.

Categories
Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 3

Many Duties

(You can start at the beginning here.)

Morning light filtered grayly through the tall, narrow windows of the Queen’s bedchamber, illuminating the book Lydia Ravenwood was reading. She’d chosen this spot strategically, as she did most mornings, in a chair near the east wall where she could see both the door and the large canopied bed where her queen lay sleeping. Though the book was well lit, Lydia remained in shadow, a short-sword and dagger at the ready, her axe and shield leaning against the wall nearby. Her eyes followed the same rigorous pattern — read a sentence, look to the door, to the windows opposite, to the bed, then back to the book. Should another attempt be made on the queen’s life, she would be on the intruders in an instant.

Pic of a Skyrim bedroom with a canopy bed

Three months into Deirdre Morningsong’s reign, and already three assassination attempts. Three too many by Lydia’s count, and she blamed herself for all of them. None had come close to succeeding, but it was still her duty — and more than duty — to prevent such attempts in the first place. Over a month had passed since the last, yet fear kept her vigilant. She never left Deirdre’s side while she was sleeping, and made sure she was well guarded when their duties kept them apart.

Fear. Not a word she was much familiar with. Fear had always been for milk-drinkers and those helpless citizens Lydia had been sworn to protect as a retainer to Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. Since being named Deirdre’s housecarl, she had seen much — Dwemer halls filled with strange, aggressive machines and vicious Falmer, labyrinthine crypts crawling with draugr and dragon priests. And the dragons themselves, of course. During none of it had she felt anything she could call fear. Even during the Retreat from Whiterun, and during her torture by the Thalmor justiciars, she’d felt only battle rage, as befit a shield-maiden of Skyrim. No fainting lasses need apply.

But now she found her heart catching in her throat if Deirdre was even a few minutes late returning from an errand to the Blue Palace. Where her nerves had always been steady, now she jumped at the slightest sound out of the ordinary, if Deirdre was nearby. Open battle she’d accept gladly over this constant threat of another sneaking, cowardly attack from behind.

Part of it had to do with their new abode. Castle Dour. Lydia couldn’t imagine a more apt name for the place, with its dark, stone walls, deep shadows in the corners, and a chill in its stale air even now at the height of summer. Though the walls were of thick stone no army could sunder, its narrow, twisting corridors hardly gave a feeling of security. She could never be sure what was hiding in the shadows of even the most well-guarded hallway, or what might be lurking around the next corner.

Pic of Castle Dour

At least she got out into the bailey every day to drill the royal guard. But Deirdre had been cooped up for months now in meetings with her counselors, as few as they were, and with emissaries from the other holds or from the East Empire Company. Her only respites from the grim castle had been short walks to the Blue Palace for consultations with Haafingar Hold’s Jarl Elisif and her steward, Falk Firebeard. The irony was, of all people Lydia had known, Deirdre was the one who relished being out-of-doors the most.

Scanning the room for the thousandth time, she saw Deirdre stirring. One bare arm reached out across the bed to the empty spot Lydia had vacated two hours before. Deirdre gave a groan, as she did every morning to find her bed empty. A moment later she raised her head and found Lydia in her accustomed spot.

“I hope that’s a trashy novel you’re reading.”

Lydia tipped the cover to show her the title – Mixed Unit Tactics.

“Of course, I should have known. And you’re ready for battle, I see. In case an assassin should somehow make it past the many guards at the door, or slip through windows too narrow even to admit much light.”

Ready for battle was a bit much. She was wearing only a padded gambeson, not even her full plate armor. “I am sworn to protect you with my life, my Queen.”

Deirdre held out her hand. “As my housecarl, yes. But as my wife, you are sworn to greet me with a morning kiss — at the least. Is this any way to treat your queen?”

Lydia went over and sat on the bed, leaning down to fulfill one of her more pleasurable duties, glad she’d rubbed her teeth with mint from the kitchen gardens. She straightened up and looked into her lover’s blue-green eyes.

“What time is it?” Deirdre asked.

“Late. I let you sleep in. You’ve had so many cares these past weeks, and so many late nights with your counselors, I thought you could use it.” She scanned Deirdre’s face, troubled by her increasingly wan complexion and gaunt features, with a new care line appearing nearly every week.

pic of Deirdre and Lydia

Deirdre made to stretch, but then threw her arms around Lydia’s neck, pulling her back down for another embrace. “Still, we can stay here a bit longer, don’t you think? Even when we were chasing Alduin, and even at the height of the Civil War, we found time to laze together of a morning, and why not now? I can hardly persuade you out of that gambeson at bedtime, and have to settle for the leather brigandine. You must admit, it’s hardly romantic.”

“I know, my love, but…”

“Oh, I suppose I can’t blame you, and should feel glad for the added security, but I can’t help wishing you’d pay as much attention to the duties of a wife as to those of a housecarl.”

“Someday…” Lydia sat up and slapped her on the thigh. “But now we both have duties to attend to. I have some new drills in mind for your royal guard. And maybe our friends will arrive today. I hope everything’s all right with them.”

“I’m worried about them too, but probably just some accident on the road has delayed them. And since today was to be devoted to showing them their new home and going over their duties, I suddenly find I have the day free.” She reached out and grasped Lydia’s hand to detain her.

“I can guess what you’re going to suggest, judging by that twinkle in your eye.”

“It’s a fine day out. Why don’t we go riding, just the two of us. I’ll be very safe with you there. It will be just like old times. Maybe we could find a secluded swimming hole, only this time no college mages will interrupt us.”

Lydia smoothed a stray strand of blond hair away from Deirdre’s face. A day away from the cares of their duties might be just what they both needed. “I’ll consider it. But my troops await me. I must at least set them to some tasks before we desert our posts. And Sonja is probably waiting impatiently just outside the door.”

Deirdre rolled her eyes at this mention of her lady’s maid. “Fine, but tell her to bring me the riding outfit, not those fine trousers and fancy shoes.”

Lydia knew how much she chafed at these trappings of royalty. Deirdre had wanted none of it, neither the fine clothes, nor the help with dressing and undressing. (“There’s only one person I want undressing me, and that’s too seldom these days,” she’d said just last week.) But Jarl Elisif had insisted, loaning Sonja from her own household. Standards must be maintained, the office must be respected, it is what the people expect, or so Elisif had said.

Lydia found Sonja just outside the door, as she’d expected, and gave her the new instructions. Then she went out to the bailey, finding that her sergeant had already gotten the men and women doing their usual morning drills. She barked a couple of reprimands at the younger ones. Many were the lads and lasses of Haafingar Hold who had joined the army in order to have a chance of coming under her command, out of a mixture of admiration and pure childish crushes. A few had even earned their way into the Royal Guard on their own merits, and with these she was more strict than usual. Not that she didn’t appreciate the admiration, but volunteering for service for the wrong reasons could get these Nordlings killed. Enough innocents had already fallen under her command. She didn’t need any more on her conscience.

Pic of the Castle Dour Bailey

Seeing that the drills were well in hand, she turned her thoughts to Deirdre’s proposal. Maybe now was the time to let up on the relentless pace they’d both followed these past months. Perhaps the guard could even use a holiday. As for the realm itself, Lydia supposed that no true emergencies remained to demand the Queen’s immediate attention. The threat of post-war famine had abated as spring progressed into summer. The milk and honey were flowing once more, the first wheat harvest had been bounteous despite the disruption in the planting season, and game was plentiful. Trade with Cyrodiil and High Rock, those remnants of the much-reduced Empire, had been fully restored. For now, the jarls of Skyrim’s nine holds were meeting their people’s daily needs.

On the surface, all was peace and prosperity. The Nords were happy now that they could once again worship Talos. They even seemed to be getting along better with the other peoples who called Skyrim home. In Windhelm, Jarl Ulfric had proclaimed that the Dunmer and the Argonians could live where they pleased, and he’d begun a public works project to improve conditions in the lower parts of the city. Even the Khajiit traders were free to enter Windhelm, though they most often stayed in their camps across the White River estuary. Closer at hand, the Nords and Bretons of Deirdre’s home town of Dragon Bridge treated each other more as neighbors and friends than they ever had.

But looming over these amicable days was the constant threat of attack, most likely by the Altmer of the Summerset Isles, whose Thalmor ruling faction was Oblivion-bent on dominating the rest of Tamriel. They were the true source of the Stormcloaks’ rebellion against the Empire, after all. A generation back, the Thalmor had pushed the Emperor into banning Talos worship as a condition of ending the Great War. And they’d policed the ban themselves, reserving the right of their spies and justiciars to patrol the province and arrest its citizens as they pleased. It was a wonder the Nords had put up with it for twenty-five years, until Ulfric Stormcloak led the uprising.

And what wouldn’t the High Elves do now, after the humiliation Deirdre and Ulfric had given them at Whiterun? With the expedient solution of assassination having failed three times now, they were surely planning the only other alternative available: all-out assault.

Skyrim was as ready as could be for such an attack. Under the leadership of Ralof of Riverwood, the armies had been recruiting and training without cease. Border outposts had been reinforced and the cities well-stocked and armed. And even now, a new fleet of longships was nearly ready to launch onto the Bay of Solitude, from whence they would fan out to fend off any attack by sea. There was little more they could do to fortify the realm’s defenses, though it was hard to know when enough was enough.

No, what Skyrim needed, Deirdre told her repeatedly, was allies: Hammerfell, Orsinium, Black Marsh, even Morrowind, as weakened as that land was after the Red Year. She had ideas as to how best to approach these realms — and even the provinces of High Rock and Elsweyr, as loyal as the one was to the Empire and the other to the Aldmeri Dominion — but she was keeping all of it to herself. “When Brelyna and J’zargo arrive,” was all she would say.

With no sign of their friends, and with everything seemingly well in hand here, Lydia thought maybe Deirdre was right, a day off was exactly what they needed. Maybe if they rode toward Dragon Bridge, they’d even come across their friends, although she knew Deirdre wanted only to escape into the wilderness, not stay to the main roads.

She was telling the sergeant about the change of plans when she noticed a messenger, panting hard, dashing toward the main door of the castle. The troops had just gathered around to hear the good news when the door of the castle burst open again and out ran Deirdre, hair half-braided and Sonja chasing behind her with her forgotten crown.

Deirdre waved a note at her. “From Elisif. Another murder in Dragon Bridge, a whole family this time.”

Lydia looked at her in confusion. One murder was bad enough, but that had been five days before. Now a whole family? “That’s terrible! But what of Elisif and Falk — shouldn’t they handle this one as well, as awful as it is?” It seemed there was little they could do, as this was Jarl Elisif’s domain. The High Queen couldn’t concern herself with every murder in Skyrim, even those that happened nearby.

“No, it’s Brelyna and J’zargo!”

Even more confused now, she took the note Deirdre shoved at her as she ran to call for the horses. The message was hastily scrawled, in language far from the carefully chosen words Elisif usually employed.

My Queen,

Another murder in Dragon Bridge — four this time — a whole family, children. More evidence of Khajiit involvement. Citizens unruly, demanding justice. Falk and I ride now to keep the peace. Two suspects arrested, say they were on their way to meet you. A Dunmer and a Khajiit, Brelyna Maryon and J’zargo. Please come!

—Elisif

Lydia dropped the note and ran after her queen.

Categories
Fiction News The Highwayman

Blog Tour Update

The blog tour for Daring and Decorum is going well, and a couple of new dates have been added.

Here’s what’s new and upcoming:

  • Cover of Blind Tribute by Mari Anne ChristieTomorrow, 7/28, I’ll be part of Mari Christie’s Facebook release party for her new Civil War novel, Blind Tribute. The event lasts from 5-9 p.m. ET, and features several authors of historical fiction, with Mari kicking things off and closing it down with a livestream. I’ll be in the 5:30-6 slot, with some excerpts and research bits. Hope you can join us!
  • Author Jennifer Senhaji will host an excerpt from D&D in which Elizabeth rebuffs Anthony, Lord Burnside’s, hesitant advances. She knows he doesn’t have the will to defy his parents, who will never approve of him marrying a vicar’s daughter. Date to be decided. Hope you’ll check out Jennifer’s site.
  • Jessica Cale will host a backstory extra on her author site this Saturday. The story takes place four years before the events of Daring and Decorum, and gives deep backstory on Rebecca. This is the most Gothic part of Rebecca’s whole tale, and involves bleak moors, a crumbling manor, lots of blood, and a couple of dead bodies, not to mention a bumbling country constable.

And here are links to the blog stops that have already taken place, as well as a couple of other tidbits from works in progress.

  • Picture of a castle, a woman and cups of teaElizabeth had a very successful tea with the Duchess of Haverford, managing to dodge some of Her Grace’s more impertinent questions.
  • Anthony’s lovelorn letter to Elizabeth appeared on Mari Christie’s website — is it any wonder he burned it, rather than sending it? Good thing, too; if it got out that she was involved in secret correspondence with a nobleman, it could ruin her reputation.
  • Cover of Stevenson's "The Beggar's Benison."I was very pleased with the response to my article about the Beggar’s Benison, that freaky Scottish sex club, over on Jessica Cale’s DirtySexyHistory. (NSFW, obviously.)
  • I was back on Jude Knight’s blog last Sunday, with an excerpt in which Rebecca and Elizabeth confront a drunken Anthony and two of his wastrel friends. Hmmm, I wonder how that drunken lord came to be sprawled on the pavement in front of Bath’s Assembly Rooms? (Not solely from his inebriation, I assure you.)
  • There was some intriguing gossip about my highwayman (known in London as the Burgundy Highwayman) over at the Teatime Tattler yesterday.

Image of a 1920s bar from The Final Draft Tavern on Facebook

  • At The Final Draft Tavern Facebook page, I offered up a bit of my research into 18th-century highwaymen, including how I think Robin stayed away from the Bow Street Runners and also avoided killing anyone in the course of many carriage robberies. The Final Draft will be publishing a holiday box set featuring my story, “The Highwayman Takes an Office,” along with stories by six other writers.
  • Jude Knight offers up excerpts from works in progress on Wednesdays, and invites other authors to join in with an excerpt of their own on the same theme. Yesterday’s theme was “transport,” and I submitted an excerpt from Silence and Secrecy (the second in my highwayman series) showing the comings and goings at a village coaching inn, where Rebecca and Elizabeth have gone to escort an arrogant professor of botany out of town. Check out her post, featuring an awkward carriage ride, and then you’ll find my excerpt in the comments.
  • I reviewed Mari Christie’s Blind Tribute, which I thoroughly enjoyed, over at Goodreads.

That’s it for now. Hope you find some of these excerpts and other bits enjoyable.

Categories
Author Spotlight Books The Highwayman

Daring and Decorum Blog Tour

Daring and Decorum book coverDaring and Decorum will be featured on several blogs and websites over the coming weeks, ramping up to its release on August 1. Mostly this is bonus material, like letters characters never sent, character interviews, and more. This is my first blog tour, so I’m just dipping my toe in the water — some writers do ten or more guest spots for a single release.

The tour starts tomorrow. The schedule is below, but first, thanks to the wonderful women of the Final Draft Tavern, the Speakeasy Scribes and the Bluestocking Belles for hosting me on their various sites.

  • Monday, July 17: Elizabeth will visit with the Duchess of Haverford on Jude Knight’s website. Look for Lizzie to try to sell some watercolors, while Her Grace gleans whatever information she can about her visitor’s relationship with a certain highwayman, for obscure purposes.
  • Wednesday, July 19: Mari Christie’s website will feature an extra that doesn’t appear in the novel, a letter from Anthony, Lord Burnside, to Elizabeth. The missive is quite improper, being a private communication in which Anthony makes some very indiscreet disclosures, which explains why Anthony never put it in the mail. (Also on Wednesday, Mari will be here with a spotlight on her new Civil War novel, Blind Tribute.)
  • Sunday, July 23: I’ll have an article on Jessica Cale’s Dirty, Sexy History focusing on an eighteenth-century Scottish sex club devoted to the “convivial celebration of the phallus.” The Prince of Wales was its most prominent, not to say its largest, member.
  • Wednesday, July 26: The Bluestocking Belles’ Teatime Tattler will feature some intriguing news about the sudden departure from London of the highwayman (known in that town as the Burgundy Highwayman), and a bit of gossip about the rogue’s actions in Devonshire.
  •  Sunday, July 30: Jude Knight will have a Spotlight feature on Daring and Decorum, including an excerpt in which Rebecca and Elizabeth are accosted by a drunken Anthony and two of his wastrel friends.

And a final tidbit: you’ll find an excerpt from a new story, told from Robin’s perspective, over on The Final Draft Tavern Facebook page. The story will appear in a holiday box set, due out this fall. The stories by seven different authors are set in different periods, from the 17th century through modern-day and onwards into an apocalyptic future. All feature the tavern as it evolved through time (sometimes appearing as a coffeehouse, as in my 18th-century story), and also the radicals and reformers who frequent it as they struggle against whatever repressive regime was in power. The holiday theme makes its appearance in various ways, sometimes sardonic, as you’ll see in this excerpt. Hope you’ll check it out!

Categories
The Highwayman

Print version of Daring and Decorum now available

Book promo for Daring and Decorum: Racier than Jane Austen, Better Written than 50 Shades of Grey.For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for the print version of Daring and Decorum, it’s now available for pre-order through your favorite local bookseller, Barnes and Noble, and through Amazon.uk. It’s not up on Amazon.com yet, but will be soon. (Come on, give BN or your local bookshop some love!) It will make my week if you pre-order, because this helps the book climb the sales-rankings on the day it’s released.

If you haven’t read the preview yet, you can find that here.

Categories
The Highwayman

Daring and Decorum Cover Reveal

It’s here, the moment I’ve been waiting for (and you too, I hope!): I can now reveal the cover of Daring and Decorum, along with pre-order info. 

Ta-da!

Daring and Decorum book cover

 

I love the bold way Robin looks at the viewer, don’t you? Exactly what I imagined when I wrote my highwayman.

The release date is August 1, but you can pre-order the novel right now. The ebook links are below, but you’ll truly warm this writer’s heart if you contact your local bookseller and request a print copy in advance. (UPDATE: The print book is now available for pre-order through your local bookseller and also through Amazon.uk. Not on Amazon.com yet.)

Amazon | Amazon UK | Website | Smashwords

If you’d like a preview before buying, the first three chapters are available here.

Categories
Books Feminism Reviews

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover of Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalI have one friend who will never read Jane Austen because he thinks they’re “just” romances, and he doesn’t like romance. I have another acquaintance who believes Jane wrote anti-romances. I think they’re both right (although that first friend isn’t right to deride romance out of hand.)

The thing I love about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re not just one thing; just about any interpretation can’t encompass them, but has to leave something out. I’ll go out on a limb and say this attribute — complexity, if you will — is the main thing that propels a book from being merely good into greatness. Emma, for instance, is both a mystery and an ironic comedy, depending on the sharpness of the reader and whether it’s a first or second reading. And it’s about much more than whom Emma decides to marry in the end.

Of course, all of Jane’s novels are romances in the structural sense, because they all feature couples achieving an apparent happy ending by getting married. But did Jane’s central interest lie in getting the couples to that point, or did she perhaps use the structure of the romance as a convenient (and sales-worthy) framework on which to hang the real business of her novels — social satire, moral lessons, skillful delineations of character, or the many other things you can say her novels are about?

Categories
Reviews

It’s Queer Romance Month!

It’s October 30Subgenre-badge-2015th, and I just found out October is Queer Romance Month.

Why queer romance, you ask? For one thing, maybe if novels like this had existed when I was a kid, my own struggles with sexuality and gender expression might have been a little less tortured. (I read all of the Tarzan series as a teenager; imagine if somewhere along the way the Ape Man had taken a male lover. Huh, attraction to both men and women can be a thing.)

Also, it turns out I have something of an allergy to the traditional, hetero romance genre. Something about those alpha males with their washboard abs and their masterful ways that I just can’t relate to (that previous mention of Tarzan aside). It seems I can only tolerate Cecilia Grant, with her male characters who are as conflicted as I am, especially in A Gentleman Undone. Or Jane Austen, whose male characters seem mostly afterthoughts to her novels’ main concerns, Darcy and his non-canonical swimming scene notwithstanding. But whether it’s two men or two women getting together, in queer romance those concerns fall by the wayside.

So, without further ado, some of my favorite queer romances, only one strictly in the romance genre, and the others ecstatically straddling genre boundaries.